Worth a closer look: The art of science

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The Wellcome Trust has put a stunning series of electron microscope images in a gallery show. Can science truly be art? Tom Lubbock trains his eye

Science and art once held hands. Robert Hooke, 17th century pioneer of microscopy, did a beautiful picture of a flea, enormously magnified, that is a classic of English draughtsmanship.

The scientist-illustrators in the tenth Wellcome Image Awards are generally photographers. The camera, at least, provides most of their material. Still, they can't help being artists too. However functional their illustrations are, function will not dictate every decision.

The need for informativeness and clarity only goes so far. There will always be some freedom of operation. There'll be a choice about colour, or shaping, or framing. Choice can't be avoided.

Now some of these Wellcome images are simply representational. You can see what they're meant to be. And some of them are jokey sci-fi fantasies. But the interesting ones, the ones I'm talking about, are those that you can't clearly identify by eye. They're of something, some biological entity, but you can't tell what. You're presented with (so to speak) an "anonymous" image.

These images don't properly belong to any genre. You can look at them partly as pure abstractions. You can look at them partly as "cloud pictures" (ie you can find all sorts of likenesses in them). And the scientist-illustrators who made them are no doubt aware – subliminally at least – of these possibilities. But whatever we call these pictures, are they any good?

Colour is where they fall down chiefly. Of course, clear contrasts are often needed, to distinguish one element from another. But there needn't be so many lurid reds and oranges and purples. There needn't be so many saturated hues. Differences can be done in other ways.

Composition is another area of weakness. The obvious fault is uniformity. You get a field of more or less the same kind of stuff. It may be fine for a screen saver, not for a lively picture.

But art works tend to generate the standards by which you judge them. You look at them, and see the kind of things that they're good at, and then you look out for the ones that are really good at that. So it's probably better not to worry about colour and composition.

Where the world of microbiology excels is in unpredictable forms and textures, ungraspable complications. For example, the solar embroidery of In Vitro Fertilisation, and the vortices of Compact Bone, are certainly interesting formations. And the electric wiggles of Sensory Nerve Fibres make an utterly mysterious "drawing". You have no idea what it could be, by whom or what it was made, or why.

But with all these images, there is a subtext too. What looks quasi-abstract is in fact definitely representational of something quite else. And the puzzling question – it arises in art galleries too – is this: do you look at the caption? Do you find out what these weird patterns really are?

When you do find out, it always makes a difference. For instance, one of the Wellcome images looks like a large spiral earthwork made out of plasticine. You then learn that it represents Aspirin Crystals. It makes you feel rather strangely, either about this earthwork formations or about aspirins.

But the effect isn't always so innocent. It can be severely ironic or worse. It's like that thing in the Turner Prize: a buff-coloured sculpture is revealed to be made of mashed cows' brains. What the caption tells you can alter your view of the work radically.

What looks harmless may turn out to be very menacing. Lung Cancer Cell suggests an exotic salad. Sickle Cell Anaemia is a deep undersea vision. And in last year's prize, C. Difficile appeared looking just like a spilt portion of chips.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders